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Is it a Panic Attack, or COVID-19?

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For the past several days, I've been experiencing periods of shortness of breath, fatigue and general soreness. On any normal occasion, I’d dismiss this as part of my generalized anxiety disorder . But now, in our current hellscape where the symptoms of COVID-19 —shortness of breath, in particular — have been drilled into our heads, it's hard not to jump to conclusions. If you've dealt with anxiety yourself, then you know that this is what leads to a spiral: getting fixated on something and becoming increasingly worked up about it, all while assuming the worst possible outcome is about to happen.

Is that shortness of breath an anxiety attack, or the onset of the virus? Is the fatigue a result of not being able to sleep for the past several nights because of my anxiety, or something worse ? And is this soreness because I'm constantly clenching every muscle in my body in perpetual fight-or-flight mode, or another type of symptom? If it was just one symptom of coronavirus that would be one thing, but three ?

I'm a rational human being who has been writing about mental health and the coronavirus for weeks at this point; surely I'm able to tell the difference between an anxiety disorder I've lived with since childhood and a global pandemic. But that's the thing about anxiety — it makes you question everything, while your brain repeatedly sends your body the message that it’s in imminent danger. And if I have this question, other people probably do too. So, as a public service (and thinly-veiled attempt to calm myself down), I spoke with three psychiatrists about how to tell the difference between the symptoms of a panic attack, general anxiety and COVID-19, and when you should seek medical attention.

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Anxiety versus a panic attack

Before we bring in the coronavirus, let’s talk about what a panic attack actually is. “Panic attacks can occur without warning. They are sudden and can happen at any time or place, ” Dr. Zlatin Ivanov a psychiatrist practicing in New York City tells Lifehacker. "Panic attacks are a result of intense fear, which triggers a physical reaction in the body when no real danger is present." According to the Cleveland Clinic the symptoms of a panic attack include:

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